“Lamb,” the directorial debut of Icelandic filmmaker Valdimar Jóhannsson, opens with an icy, inhospitable wilderness. Something lumbers through fields of snow, huffing and heaving and puffing and pounding — all we get is the litany of noises it produces as it trudges forward, first past a wary herd of thick-coated horses and eventually into the comparative oasis of a sheep enclosure.
There are a lot of reasons to go into a sheep’s pen in the thick of an Icelandic storm. Shelter, for one — complete with warm, wooly beds. Maybe for a snack — there’s as much mutton as there are beds.
But no, the unknown creature isn’t looking for a warm respite from the weather. It’s not looking for hearty sheep’s meat to nosh on either. Dear reader, I’m sorry to inform you: It’s looking for the hanky-panky.
Did you know that in 2015 there were about 800,000 sheep in Iceland? And only 300,000-ish people. That’s 300,000-ish people counting 800,000 sheep every night before they go to bed. It’s only inevitable that those legions of sheep would percolate into the creative ether of Iceland’s collective unconscious to produce something as truly bizarre as “Lamb.”
The film was presented as supernatural, folkloric horror in the trailer. That element is there, but it belays the film’s true nature. The horror of “Lamb” is the garnish on a homey meal that is, through-and-through, a well-cooked family drama.
The film isn’t about that lumbering sheep-screwer at all. “Lamb” is about a family. Maria, the mom (Noomi Rapace, “Here Are the Young Men”). Ingvar, the dad (Hilmir Snær Guðnason, “A White, White Day”). And Ada, the sheep-person baby thing, the product of the aforementioned sheep-screwing swiftly adopted by Maria and Ingvar.
Maria and Ingvar are depressed potato farmers. By some monstrously-induced miracle, they have been bequeathed a child. Never mind the cloven hoof or that it bleats instead of cries. Familial harmony, marital bliss — it all abounds, and it flows into the audience. As Ada delights with her parents, we delight. Whenever Ada’s parents lose sight of her, as is wont to happen to every parent at some point or another in the arduous journey of child-rearing, we’re scared and aggrieved right alongside them.
In short, the film is terribly charming. But it’s not exactly feel-good. “Lamb” is suffused with incredible country charisma, but it’s balanced out by an unrelenting sense of foreboding as delivered by the aforementioned dashes of folkloric horror. Sheep can be creepy, and the unyielding eyes of mountain rams and harried bleats of Ada’s ewe-mom are chilling. But again, “Lamb” isn’t a horror film. In trying to capture that horror mien without really being one, it relies on a measure of inscrutability that can make the film frustrating. Without a serial killer or pagan cult to keep you on your toes, it dials up the laconic mysteriousness: weird dreams, weird flashbacks, weird lingering shots.
There’s something in all that weirdness — lessons about grief, a rumination on growing up alienated, a fable about ecological exploitation, a study in karma. But it’s buried under a seemingly deliberate desire to be esoteric as if being ambiguous is a heuristic for profundity. Esotericism, ambiguity, profundity all have their place, but “Lamb” doesn’t quite find the right mix.
“Lamb” is endearing, wackily sweet and permeated by a strong sense of soulfulness, perceived or otherwise. If lamb babies are to your taste, it might just be a mesmerizing and potent little fable. With the thought that the entire story is predicated on the idea that a mystery monster had its way with a sheep safely tucked away, it’s completely enrapturing, with a delightfully chilling, completely wacky ending. And if lamb-baby things aren’t to your taste, well, the lamb is pretty cute.
Daily Arts Writer Jacob Lusk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.